Shoes and water bottles were hurled on Punjab cabinet minister Tota Singh and his fellow Akali leaders on Saturday here, as radicals protesting their US tour went berserk.
The Punjab minister for agriculture and NRI affairs had led his delegation into the Richmond Hill venue at Queens Borough to address a meeting when hundreds of Sikh protesters asking for Khalistan (a separate homeland in India) converged at the place and laid siege to it for more than three hours, which forced a heavy New York Police force to be summoned and the Akali leaders to be whisked away.
The police, later, arrested two protesters on charges related to obstructing the administration, unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct. "Do not hold the Akali government responsible for your self-inflicted damage," Tota Singh told the hostile radicals, adding: "Of the feuds non-resident Punjabis are caught in, 70% were started by their blood relations."
The minister, one of the few remaining Taksali (old-school) Akalis in the modern Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) set-up that has sent representatives to Canada, Europe, and the US to garner the support of the Punjabi diaspora for the 2017 assembly elections, told the aggressive crowd to consider the work his government had done a for the welfare of non-resident Punjabis. "Of the 854 cases in which you were proclaimed offenders, Punjab courts have cancelled 300. Soon all wrong cases will go," he told the crowd, adding that Punjab had also relaxed property rules for expatriates.
Former SAD legislator Inderiqbal Singh Atwal asked the gathering to highlight positive issues on the social media. The Punjab government and Akali leaders are being trolled on Facebook. "Most of it is baseless and hearsay," Tota Singh said, later.
Replying to the radical protesters who were referring to SAD (Amritsar) president Simranjit Singh Mann as the Nelson Mandela of Punjab, Tota Singh blamed him for dividing the SAD. "Go back into history and recall, we offered him the reins of the Akali Dal to take up Sikh issues with the Centre, but he backed out," he said. "The other communities accord warm welcome to their leaders, but Punjabis and Sikhs abuse them," regretted Tota Singh. "We have the right to oppose," said a protester.
Punjab elections are due in less than two years and the growing expatriate support for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has pushed the SAD to revive its defunct foreign units. The mission guided by party president Sukhbir Singh Badal has run into stiff opposition from the radicals, who have a big say among Sikhs living abroad. "The meetings will have a positive impact. Let's us see how much and how soon," said an Akali leader based in New York.
The Richmond Hill area of New York, which has one of the oldest gurdwaras in the US, is the hotbed of Sikh politics in America, where AAP convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had received a huge reception a few months ago. The SAD meeting was supposed to be a tactical response.
On Sunday, Tota Singh will address a gathering in Washington, while colleagues Surjeet Singh Rakhra, Sikandar Singh Maluka, Manjit Singh GK, and Manjinder Singh Sirsa will hold simultaneous meetings in the US and Canada. The previous meetings have not been as chaotic.
With inputs from PTI